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Archaeologists Catch Big Break In Disappearance Of Roanoke Island Colonists


In 1519, the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition to Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast. He was hoping to resupply colonists who had settled there three years earlier. All of them were missing. The only evidence of the colony that has disappeared were the word Croatoan and the letters C-R-O carved in a fencepost and a tree. Well, now, after these four-centuries-plus, there may be a break in the mystery of the lost colony. Phillip Evans is president of the First Colony Foundation which has sponsored archaeological research for several years. And today, in Chapel Hill, N.C., the foundation announced its new finding. Mr. Evans, welcome to the program.

PHILLIP EVANS: I'm happy to be here with you.

SIEGEL: And the finding was at a place called Site X that I'll ask you about in a moment. But first, tell us what was found there?

EVANS: We're finding evidence of domestic occupation, some iron objects from the late 16th century in a fairly concentrated area and in a context that leads us to believe that there were a small number of English people from 1587 who had relocated to this site.

SIEGEL: Now, as you say, this site, Site X, is not on Roanoke Island, but it's across the water on the mainland. What led archaeologists to that spot?

EVANS: Three things - one was, when John White came in 1590 and looked for the colony, he mentioned that the settlers had talked about moving 50 miles into the main even before he left in 1587. In addition, in 2012, we engaged in some research with the British Museum on a map that John White had made - a watercolor map that now resides in the British Museum. And it was found in the analysis of that map that a blue-red fort symbol had been placed on the map and then covered up. But through research at the British Museum, we were able to project and find this blue-red fort symbol at this site. The third thing was our archaeological team have gone over the artifact collections of all sites in the region and were able to pinpoint one site which seemed to be delivering evidence of late-16th century ceramics and iron material.

SIEGEL: Has anyone offered a good explanation as to why, if someone had marked on a map of North Carolina an X, a spot where there was a fort, why would one have then patched over that and obscured it?

EVANS: You have to understand. This is the period of the war of the Spanish Armada. There are spies, English spies and Spanish spies. And there were constantly looking for places where they could find out where the other side was and pounce on them. The threat of the Armada and the danger it posed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was, of course, the first priority of the nation. The colony here in America, as important as it is for us here in the Unites States today, would have been of minor importance to the queen. She had to maintain her position and defend her realm against this Spanish attack whether 100-so men, women and children in American survived or not.

SIEGEL: Now, if this Site X find is all that it might be, it might explain where the Roanoke colonists went from Roanoke Island. It still wouldn't explained why they were no longer at Site X.

EVANS: That's right. What we're trying to explain is where some part of them went after they left Roanoke Island. We know that they told their governor they were planning to leave Roanoke Island and move into the interior, and this gives us a site where at least some portion of them went for a while. Now, where they went after that or what happened to them is still not known. We've still got a lot of mystery to solve.

SIEGEL: So children who have learned the mystery of the lost colony in school for centuries still will have some mystery to deal with, even if this find turns out to be everything you expect it is.

EVANS: Absolutely. The mystery of the lost colony is still alive and well. We are now finally, though, after four centuries, getting credible evidence on where some of the colonists went, but there's still a good deal of mystery. There's a great deal of research still left to be done. We've only examined part of this site. The mystery is still alive and well.

SIEGEL: Mr. Evans, thanks for talking with us today.

EVANS: It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Philip Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation, which sponsors researcher into the lost colony of Roanoke. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.